Thursday, August 12, 2010

Wally weka.

I’ve just had a week at Deep Cove with three classes from St Peters College. It was a good week. We found the glowworms, did the old Doubtful Sound Track three times, sampled the water three times and climbed to Hanging Valley three times. The number of wekas around the hostel is growing thanks to stoat trapping in the area. A few years ago it was expected that they would disappear but there are a dozen or more in the vicinity and we encountered other pairs along the road. They are unusually dark and often called Black wekas.

North Island weka

The weka is part of the large order that includes the pukeko and takahe, rails and crakes. There is a single species divided into four subspecies. These are the North Island weka, the Western weka which is found in Marlborough, Nelson, the West Coast and Fiordland, the Stewart Island weka and the Buff weka. The Buff weka is native to the eastern South Island but became extinct around 1920. Fortunately it had been introduced to the Chatham Islands where it was common enough to be both a pest and a menu item. I tried one there in 1981. It was gamey of course but quite edible. Its value as food was important to Maori and to sealing gangs left to their work on the rocky coasts. The curiosity of the bird, its abundance and ease of capture made the shopping easy until they got wary.

They were called woodhens by the settlers but are usually called wekas these days, or ‘weka’ if you subscribe to the idea that Maori words that have been absorbed by English don’t get the ‘s’. I don’t.

There is the odd Woodhen Cove around and the strange Three-legged Woodhen which is an anchorage on Stewart Island, three legs apparently being an unusual number for a bird. The most famous placename with weka in it is Weka Pass which you go through on the way from Christchurch to Hanmer. Not much of a pass but there is a restored railway there.

Wekas disappeared from around Invercargill over 100 years ago. They are feisty but no match for cats and ferrets. As soon as the stoat, weasel and ferret were brought in for rabbit control people noticed the drop in weka numbers and they were soon all gone apart from the more inaccessible places. Cats eliminated them from much of the main Stewart Island but they have been brought back to the Halfmoon Bay area with some success and they thrive on Ulva Island away from interference. They are great thieves and are easy to distract with shiny objects. As the steamer Waikare sank in Dusky Sound in 1910, the passengers watched it disappear from the fastness of a nearby island. One female passenger removed her ring and it was promptly stolen by a weka. By the stratagem of enticing the weka with a silver teaspoon to which a cotton thread was tied, the bird’s hideout was located and the ring recovered.

Western weka

When I had scouts we had a Weka Patrol. Kids like to associate with a critter of some character such as a Kea, Eagle, Kiwi or Tiger. There never was a Fantail Patrol nor a Budgerigar Patrol. The Kiwi Patrol had a stuffed weka which the Weka Patrol wanted, the Wekas had a deer head that the Stag Patrol coveted but the Stags didn’t have anything to offer the Kiwis to secure a deal. They had to be content with a cow skull to which two right antlers were bolted. The Weka Patrol painted their den purple. The ceiling was an old parachute and they had a genuine porthole in the door. The Venturers liked this den as it had the best seats. They borrowed the Wekas’ kettle and stole their tea and biscuits. The scouts spiked some teabags with alum which makes the milk curdle and settle in the bottom.